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The soul of the marionette: a short enquiry…

The soul of the marionette: a short enquiry into human freedom (2015)

by John Gray

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This book hovers slightly above the level of useless crap. ( )
  johnclaydon | Aug 11, 2017 |
and wide-ranging; his immense breadth of reading much on display, as well as his trade-mark pessimism. But ultimately leaves me a little confused. Central idea seems to be that a marionette is somehow freer than a human, a thought derived from Kleist, and one i find hard to grasp. He attacks several of the gurus of scientific rationalism, but oddly without naming them (Pinker and Dawkins are clearly in his sights). And there are Intriguing digressions into Stanislav Lem, Philkip K Dick and many more. Forster's The Machine Stops comes over as an amazing forecast of the modern world complete with iPads! He sees modern society as a combination of Brave New World (mindless ignorance and hedonism) and 1984 (control and intrusion by malign powers). But his central thesis seems to be mystical and mysterious, and for me doesn't quite add up ( )
  vguy | Jul 31, 2016 |
The success of a polemic requires either a sympathetic audience or a subtle message. Given its contrarian outlook, The Soul of the Marionette is unlikely to receive much in the way of sympathy. Its lack of subtlety ensures that even nonpartisan readers will find its assumptions bemusing and its assertions tenuous.

In the first section, Gray defines human freedom as the absence of doubt and indecision. To support his claim, he references Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “The Marionette Theatre”. According to Kleist, Marionettes have no consciousness, humans have flawed consciousness, and god has infinite consciousness. As a result, marionettes and god cannot experience doubt or indecision. Alternatively, humans cannot escape doubt and indecision because they are fundamental attributes of a limited consciousness.

Following the interpretation of von Kleist’s essay, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the connection between Gray’s subsequent literary observations and the underlying theme of his book. This is not to say that Gray’s insight into the work of Dick, Forster, Lem, Leopardi, Poe, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is not without merit. For instance, Gray makes an anecdotal but compelling case for the paranoia of Phillip K. Dick as evidence of the human tendency to find meaning where there is none to be found. This theme is later revisited when Gray comments on Italian politics and the popular response to The Report from Iron Mountain.

Gray may have intended for these sections to emphasize that paranoia is a pathology engendered by doubt; if this is the case, Gray leaves it to the reader to make the connection (assuming that the reader is not attempting to find meaning where there is none to be found) while he moves on to the dialectics of uncaring and unintelligible extraterrestrials in Solaris and Roadside Picnic, respectively. Gray is a careful reader and his writing is persuasive, but the reader ultimately realizes that they are making their way through a series of very short essays with a few piecemeal transitions included as an afterthought.

Gray eventually posits that the secular population’s fascination with scientific materialism is actually a type of Gnosticism. This neo-Gnosticism, according to Gray, is at least partially responsible for attempts to create a better version of humanity. With this in mind, Gray scrutinizes attempts to create egalitarian societies using so-called Universalist values. He seems to conclude that the attempt to create better societies (or advanced artificial intelligence) is ultimately doomed to failure because imperfect creators are incapable of creating perfection.

In other words, contradiction, fantasy, and mythology are inexorable elements of human nature, so attempts to apply specialized, neo-Gnostic knowledge for the betterment of the species will be palliative rather truly progressive. Gray suggests that the purpose of such attempts is to reassure an anxious population that cycles of war, poverty, and unrest are coming to a close. But rather than a utopia, Gray envisages a future in which humanity has been displaced by automation and relegated to a life of pure consumption. At one point, he suggests that people could equip themselves with devices that continually inform their users of human progress via statistics; he compares this potential phenomenon to Tibetan prayer wheels, which are meant to generate the effects of prayers that would otherwise require oral recitation. The conceit is a clever one, but the delivery is drawn out and Gray quickly glosses over the punch line.

Later, Gray draws comparisons between Hobbesian social contracts and the Aztec’s worship of a capricious god. He argues that societies need not be assured of continued peace to generate advanced civilizations, and subsequently depicts the lake city of Tenochtitlan in stark contrast to the filth of contemporaneous European cities. The implication seems to be that the Western insistence on civilizations as distinct from chaos is fashionable rather than fundamental.

Again, it is difficult to ascertain what Gray intends by engineering such a contrast; presumably, he hopes to emphasize the neo-Gnostic tradition’s role in shaping a narrative concerning the displacement of chaos rather than the existence of civilization alongside chaos. The comparison is an interesting one, but ultimately hinges on a very close reading of Hobbes, a very literal application of his language, and a quixotic view of Aztec society that is quite ironic given Gray’s unflattering portrayal of the Spanish. For instance, Gray does not fully address the possibility that the Aztec sacrifices may have been intended to prevent the onset of chaos, even if they ultimately relegated themselves to destruction at the hands of their gods. Distressingly, Gray again offers little guidance for determining how his conclusions regarding the Aztecs fit into his overarching argument regarding human freedom.

Given the expansive and abstract nature of Gray’s arguments, the reader may be expected to find it difficult to recognize when Gray is establishing a premise and when he is arriving at a conclusion. However, The Soul of the Marionette is a slim volume that could easily have been much slimmer, so it is difficult to make allowances for Gray’s occasional inability to be clear as well as concise. Adding to the disarray is the fact that Gray’s narrative style vacillates between guiding the reader to a definitive viewpoint with regard to his observations on government and leaving the reader to fend for themselves with regard to his observations on literature. Gray’s positions are not always immediately predictable and his arguments are usually worthwhile, though; with that said, it would have been better to release The Soul of Marionette as a series of essays rather than a unified inquiry into human freedom. ( )
  wrshif | May 21, 2015 |
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...grace will be most purely present in the human frame that either has no consciousness or an infinite amount of it, which is to say either in a marionette or in a god.

Heinrich von Kleist, 'The puppet theatre'
I mean, after all: you have to consider we're only made out of dust.

Philip K Dick, 'The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374261180, Hardcover)

Compared with that of humans, the life of the marionette looks more like an enviable state of freedom

In his brilliantly enjoyable and freewheeling new book, John Gray draws together the religious, philosophic, and fantastical traditions that question the very idea of human freedom. We flatter ourselves about the nature of free will and yet the most enormous forces—logical, physical, metaphysical—constrain our every action. Many writers and intellectuals have always understood this, but instead of embracing our condition we battle against it, with everyone from world conquerors to modern scientists dreaming of a "human dominion" almost comically at odds with our true state.
     Filled with wonderful examples and drawing on the widest possible reading (from the Gnostics to Philip K. Dick), The Soul of the Marionette is a stimulating and engaging meditation on everything from cybernetics to the fairground marionettes of the title.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:54 -0400)

In The Soul of the Marionette, his brilliantly enjoyable and freewheeling book, John Gray draws together the religious, philosophic, and fantastical traditions that question the very idea of human freedom.

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